• Leslie

The Most Beautiful Must See Towns in Italy, For Your Bucket List

Updated: May 25

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta." -- Frederico Fellini


pretty pastel houses in Cinque Terre
pretty pastel houses in Cinque Terre

Need some destination inspiration for planning a trip to Italy? This Italy travel guide takes you to 30 of the most beautiful and breathtaking towns in Italy, for your bucket list.


Italy is one of my favorite countries, a dream destination I could return to time and time again. Italy has Europe's richest and most ancient culture. After all, Italy is the cradle of European civilization — founded by the Roman Empire and embellished by the Roman Catholic Church.


As you explore Italy, you'll confront some of the world's most iconic monuments -- Roman ruins, UNESCO sites, Renaissance masterpieces, elegant medieval towns. But you'll also find jaw dropping landscapes and magical seaside hamlets.



Magical Must See Towns in italy


In this guide, I take you on a curated tour of 30 of Italy's most beautiful and charming towns. I've left out Rome because, as such big city, it deserves special treatment.


I've spilled so much ink over the eternally fascinating Eternal City, it's hard to fathom. So, now, I delight you with Italy's smaller charming gems.



the famous Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River in Florence
the famous Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River in Florence


30 Most Beautiful Towns In Italy For Your Bucket List


So let's get down to business and discover the prettiest and most charming cities, towns, and villages in Italy.


1. Florence: Renaissance Marvel


I'll start with my favorite town in Italy, Florence. Florence is an overwhelmingly beautiful city, the "Cradle of the Renaissance." With the best Medieval and Renaissance art in Europe, Florence is a veritable art lovers paradise.


Florence is a city that's alive, sensual, and romantic. You can be seduced by Botticelli and awed by Michelangelo, in a time tunnel experience. Not surprisingly, Florence's entire city center is a designated UNESCO site. There are scads of must see sites in Florence.


You can visit frescoed churches, the Medici palaces, majestic cathedrals, and elegant piazzas, and world class museums. And tread on the same flagstones as Leonardo, Dante, and Galileo.


READ: 1 Day Itinerary for Florence



the iconic Brunelleschi dome of Florence cathedral
the iconic Brunelleschi dome of Florence cathedral

Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia
Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia


Florence Cathedral is the most prominent landmark in Florence. It was built over 172 years, beginning in 1296. Florence Cathedral is Gothic in style, but not in the light and elegant way you think of Paris' Notre Dame. It's made of brown sandstone and beautifully frosted with pink, green, and white marble.


If you buy a combination ticket for the entire Duomo complex, you can also visit and/or climb Brunelleschi's dome, Giotto's Bell Tower, the dazzling Baptistry, and the Duomo museum.


Spend some time lingering in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's free outdoor sculpture gallery. Head inside the Palazzo Vecchio, former home of the Medici dynasty, and admire the frescos by Giorgio Vasari.


READ: Who Were the Medici?



the world famous Uffizi Gallery the Arno River
the world famous Uffizi Gallery the Arno River


You can't leave Florence without visiting the Uffizi Gallery. It's a bastion of Renaissance art with one of the world's most famous paintings, Botticelli's Birth of Venus.


If you're a real art fan, plan to see Michelangelo's iconic David in the Galleria dell'Accademia and the sculptures of the Bargello Museum. Or, if you like to travel with a theme, you can follow the Michelangelo trail in Florence.


READ: Complete Guide To Visiting the Uffizi Gallery



6th century mosaics in the main apse in the Basilica of Sant Apolinare in Classe
6th century mosaics in the main apse of the Basilica of Sant Apolinare in Classe


2. Ravenna: Magical Mosaics


Ravenna was once the epicenter of the Western World, when the Byzantine Empire made Ravenna its capitol. The Byzantine rulers blanketed Ravenna's churches with gorgeous mosaics. Ravenna boasts the best early Christian mosaics in the world. This artistic legacy rivals Venice or Istanbul, making Ravenna a UNESCO site in 1996.


If, like me, you feel compelled to admire these glittering gems, these are the must see sites in Ravenna: (1) the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe; (2) the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo; (3) the Basilica of San Vitale; (4) the Neonian Baptistery, (5) the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and (6) the Archbishop's Chapel.


You can visit these sites with a combination ticket. The best mosaics are in the Basilica of San Vitale, built by the Emperor Justinian in 540. It's a separate national museum with an entry fee of 10.50.


Ravenna's most famous son is Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy and father of the Italian language. The poet spent the last three years of his life in Ravenna, after being expelled from Florence when he fell out of political favor. You can visit Dante's tomb, a small neoclassical temple right next to the Basilica of San Francesco.


READ: Complete Guide To the Mosaics of Ravenna



beautiful homes in Mantua
beautiful homes in Mantua


3. Mantua: Renaissance Haven


Italy is usually overflowing with tourists. But in the tiny undiscovered village of Mantua the world is still and quiet. Mantua must surely be one of Europe's best kept secrets.


Mantua lies in the north of Italy in the Lombardy region, surrounded by three lakes. It's a fairly easy day trip from Milan or Verona. Mantua is the perfect place for strolling -- with arcaded streets, cobbled lanes squares, and graceful buildings.


What makes Mantua especially dreamy is its Renaissance architecture, courtesy of the aristocratic Gonzaga family who ruled Mantua for four centuries. Here, you'll find the grand Ducal Palace, the Te Palace, St. Peter Cathedral, the Teatro Bivbiena, and the Rotuno of San Lorenzo. For a tiny place, it's just amazing.



oculus of the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace
oculus of the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace

Hall of Giants in Te Palace
Hall of Giants in Te Palace


Mantua's most famed site is the Ducal Palace or Palazzo Ducale. It's the second largest residential building in Europe, after the Vatican. It's a massive fortress-like residence. Inside, there'a maze of 600 ornate gilded, frescoed, and marbled rooms, topped with a Hall of Mirrors.


The must see UNESCO-listed site is Andrea Mantegna's famous Camera degli Sposi in Mantua Italy. The Camera is a magical room frescoed with illusionistic paintings in Mantua's Ducal Palace. It's a hugely influential masterpiece from the Early Renaissance, considered the first trompe l'oeil in the history of painting.


READ: Complete Guide to the Camera degli Sposi


Te Palace is one of the world's most unique and beautiful buildings, a wildly inventive and theatrical feat of both architecture and decoration. Te Palace was designed and built by Raphael's best pupil, Giulio Romano, between 1525-35. The palace is a must visit destination in Italy for art lovers, filled with sybaritic frescos.


READ: Complete Guide To Te Palace



the walled village of Monteriggioni in Tuscany
the walled village of Monteriggioni in Tuscany


4. Monteriggioni: Walled Village


Monteriggioni is an idyllic walled town in the Tuscany. Just look how charming it is. It almost doesn't look real. Monteriggioni was built by Sienna in the 13th century as a defense in its ongoing conflict with its arch rival, Florence.


There's an upper and a lower parking lot. It's especially pretty in the early morning or at sunset. 4 euros gets you entry to the walls and the museum onsite. You only need an hour or two. If you want to have lunch or dinner, try Il Pozzo.


If you're a fan of Assassin’s Creed, you'll be glad to know that Monteriggioni is real (though much smaller than depicted there). The town also makes an appearance in Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante compares the spiky turrets of Monteriggioni to giants surrounding the abyss.



the Conopus at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli
the Conopus at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli


5. Tivoli: UNESCO Sites


Historic Tivoli lies just 20 miles east of Rome on the edge of the Sabine Hills. Tivoli is the perfect day trip from Rome, especially for archeology lovers and history buffs.


The town itself is not exceptionally pretty. But Tivoli is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the sprawling Hadrian's Villa, and the comely 16th century Villa d'Este, a Renaissance retreat. If you're fond of ancient history or are ruin luster like me, you'll be fascinated and thrilled by the evocative ruins of Hadrian's Villa.



the Fountain of the organ at Villa d'Este
the Fountain of the organ at Villa d'Este

me at the Canopus of Hadrian's Villa
me at the Canopus of Hadrian's Villa


Hadrian's Villa is an important archeological complex. It was the largest and most spectacular palace of ancient Rome, three times the size of Pompeii. It reflected the power and glory of ancient Rome and the world's most important leader, Emperor Hadrian. And it was designed by Hadrian himself, who fancied himself an amateur architect.


If you have ruin fatigue, the next door late Renaissance estate, Villa d'Este, is a delicious escape. Villa d'Este is a playground of whimsy, topped with a frescoed villa and a sweet honeysuckle breeze. The gardens are filled with sparkling fountains, moss draped grottos, and ponds filled with water lilies.


READ: Complete Guide to Hadrian's Villa



Stresa
Stresa


6. Stresa: Italian Lake District


The Italian lake district is one of Italy's prettiest regions, situated in the shadow of the Alps. The main lakes are Lake Como, Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. Most people settle in at the swishiest village, magical Bellagio on Lake Como. But on the western Lake Maggiore you'll find a real treasure -- Stresa.


Elegant laid back Stresa is easy to fall in love with. Grandiose villas line the waterfront promenade, which is made for leisurely strolling. The medieval streets are a delightful tangle.


But the best thing to do in Stresa is ferry over to the tiny off shore Borromean Islands -- Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori, and Isolar Madre. They're open to the public between mid March and mid October. The highlight is the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella with an 80 foot dome.


The powerful Borromeo family, like the Gazagos, were Lombardian aristocrats. Lake Maggiore was their personal playground. Their grand palace on Isola Bella is a Renaissance masterpiece. Inside it's exquisite, with an 8th century grotto, decorated floor to ceiling with shell motifs and mosaics. The terraced Italianate gardens are just luscious, with a wafting scent of jasmine floating in the air.



Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio


7. Civita di Bagnoregio: Tiny Hilltop Village


The Etruscans founded Civita di Bagnoregio over 2500 years ago and it's largely unaltered ever since. The isolated and picturesque Civita teeters on a hilltop in a vast canyon, north of Rome. The topography scares away most tourists.


To access this little hamlet, you'll have to ditch your car, walk across an elevated and steep 300 meter pedestrian bridge, and enter via a massive 12th century stone arch called the Porta Santa Maria. What could be more dreamy and surreal?


Once inside, the charms of Civita are subtle. There's nothing special to do but look around in this rural village. It's just unadulterated old world Italy. The warm stone walls glow in the sunshine. Have a seat on the steps of San Donato Church, be suspended in time, and admire the flowerpots.



Panoramic view of the historic center of Bergamo
panoramic view of the historic upper city of Bergamo


8. Bergamo: For Architecture Lovers


Bergamo is a small town in Italy's Lombardy region, located between Milan and Lake Como. Bergamo outshines Italy's capital in beauty and graceful architecture. The town makes a great base for touring northern Italy. But aside from its geographic convenience, Bergamo is a fascinating historical city.


Bergamo has an upper and lower city. Naturally, the upper city, or Citta Alta, is the older Renaissancey part of town. Start off with a walk around the 16th century Venetian Walls. The vibrant center of Bergamo is Piazza Vecchia. There, you'll find every manner of shop, cafe, and restaurant.



Contarini fountain on Piazza Vecchia
Contarini fountain on Piazza Vecchia


The other must see square is the Piazza del Duomo. Walk throughs he archways of the Palazzo della Ragione and you'll reach it. The square boasts the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Go inside! You enter through a portico with Venetian lions into an extravaganza of Baroque gilding and Renaissance tapestries.


To the right of the basilica lies the even more impressive Colleoni Chapel. Sporting a pink and white marble facade, the chapel stands out with a combination of Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque architectural elements.


READ: 24 Hours in Milan



view of the medieval walls and towers of Orvieto
view of the medieval walls and towers of Orvieto


9. Orvieto: Celebrated Cathedral Town


Charming Orvieto is the capitol of Umbria. It's set high above a volcanic outcropping and chock full of medieval buildings. Nothing much has changed in this rustic fairytale town in 500 years.


The main drag in Orvieto is the Corso Cavour. In the town center, the Torre del Moro, a 13th century civic landmark, towers above. An elevator and another 171 steps get you to the top where you'll have panoramic views.



the beautiful facade of Orvieto Cathedral
the beautiful facade of Orvieto Cathedral


Orvieto's piece de resistance is its magnificent cathedral. Orvieto Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and ancient churches in Italy. It's a riveting ensemble of spires, spikes, golden mosaics, statuary, stained glass, and black and white striped marble. And that's just the facade.


Inside, the Chapel of San Brizio has one of the Renaissance's greatest fresco cycles by Luca Signorelli. Michelangelo came to inspect the chapel before beginning his own master work, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. The frescos depict the usual religious themes -- temptation, damnation, and salvation.



view of Siena's Duomo fascinating complex
view of Siena's Duomo complex

10. Siena: a Burnt Orange UNESCO Wonder


Siena is one of the best cities to visit in Tuscany for its rustic medieval beauty, tasty food, and luscious chianti. If you want to bask in medieval times, there's no better place. Spend at least one day in Siena. I guarantee you'll fall in love.


You'll want to spend ample time strolling through the pedestrianized historic center. It's a well-preserved burnt orange dream littered with cute cafes and shops.


Siena's most famous site is its Duomo, Siena Cathedral. It's one of Europe's most beautiful churches, especially for lovers of all things Gothic. It's the symbol of Siena, clad all over in Siena's trademark white and dark green marble. Consistent with the Gothic ethos that "more is always better," every inch is decorated with marble, mosaics, sculptures, and frescos.


READ: Guide To the Siena Cathedral Complex



restaurants lining the Piazza del Campo in Siena
restaurants lining the Piazza del Campo

the Palazzo Pubblico in Piazza del Campo, a must see site in Siena
the Palazzo Pubblico in Piazza del Campo


To visit the Siena Duomo complex properly, you need to pre-purchase the Opa Si Pass. The Duomo complex isn't just Siena Cathedral. It also includes the Baptistry, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the Facciatone viewing terrace, and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo Museum. The Facciatone offers stunning views.


Don't forget to tour Siena's town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico. It was built in 1297-1308 for the Council of Nine, the governing body of Siena. The palazzo is one of the seminal civic structures in Europe It's a harmonious example of early Renaissance architecture, with a curved brick facade and beautiful triforate arched windows.


Inside, you'll find the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, one of the most famous frescos in Italy. Beside the palazzo soars the slender Tower of Mangia, which you can climb for panoramic views.


READ: 24 hours in Siena



the dramatic coastline of Capri
the dramatic coastline of Capri


11. Capri: Roman Ruins & Grottos


Rugged mountainous Capri is one of the world's most glamorous islands. It was made famous as the vacation hideaway of the Roman emperors. Capri was also a popular stop for the wealthy on their "grand tour of Europe." Today, it's crowded. But even with the crowds, it's drop dead gorgeous, set on a glittering blue sea.


The center of life in Capri is the Piazzettta. Often overflowing with crowds, it's been called "the world's living room."


If you love Roman ruins more than exclusive boutiques, head to Villa Jova, a fantastic archaeological site. Emperor Tiberius was the reluctant heir of Rome's first emperor, Augustus. But he was a military man, not suited for Rome's internecine politics. Eventually, he abandoned Rome for his swishy villa perched precipitously on Capri's rosemary scented cliffs.


Most people indulge in a Blue Grotto boat tour, though it can be a tourist trap extraordinaire. If the sea waters are calm, you transfer from your motor boat into a row boat and enter the cave. Then, the magical colors of the water and walls envelope you.



ruins of a Roman amphitheater in Lecce
ruins of a Roman amphitheater in Lecce


12. Lecce: the Florence of the South


Located in the radiant Puglia region of Italy, beautiful Lecce is known as the Florence of the South. The historic center is constructed from Lecce stone, a local golden limestone, and decorated with ebullient Baroque architecture. The city's history dates back to Roman times, though it was largely constructed in the mid 17th century.


Lecce is easy to explore on foot. Begin in the monumental Piazza Sant'Orozio where a 2nd century Roman column looms above. At the southern end of the piazza, there's the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater, dating from either the 1st or 2nd century. It originally seated 25,000 screaming patrons enjoying the gory games between gladiators and beasties.


READ: Guide To Roman Ruins in Rome Italy


Lecce also a string of ornate Baroque churches, along Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Giuseppe Libertini. The most famous church in town is the Basilica of Santa Croce. While it's not as renowned as the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, it's of a different vintage, overflowing with Baroque ornamentation. Lecce also has a Duomo, with a 12th century chiseled facade.



aerial view of Sorrento coastline
aerial view of Sorrento coastline


13. Sorrento: Lemon Lively


Wedged on a ledge over the sea, the cliff top town of Sorrento makes a perfect springboard for visiting the Amalfi Coast. You can day trip to Pompeii, Positano, Capri, and even Naples.


Start your tour of Sorrento on Piazza Torquato Tasso. Named after an Italian poet, this is the center of life in Sorrento. Tasso's statue sits in the Piazza Sant'Antonio. But the hidden back lanes of Sorrento are the most tantalizing, filled with shops selling gelato, limoncello, prosecco, leather goods, and more.


If you're ready to sit down and sip, the Hotel Belair Sorrento offers stunning views overlooking Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius. There's also good views from La Pergola Bar a Champagne.


If you need some beach time, head to Marina Grande Beach. Sorrento is also famous for its lemons and filled with lemon groves.



the seaside town of Santa Margherita
the seaside town of Santa Margherita


14. Santa Margherita: Portofino Alternative


The Italian Riviera is known for its colorful seaside towns. While most people flock to Cinque Terre, Santa Margherita is just as beautiful and less crowded. And much less glitzy than its elegant neighbor Portofino.


Santa Margherita has a pretty palm lined waterfront. Cafes line the town's two seaside squares, Piazza Martini della Liberta and Piazza Vittorio Veneto. The only landmark of note is the Basilica of Sant Margherita, worth a look for its gilded and chandelier interior.


If you want a picturesque hike or run, a well traveled trail connects Santa Margherita with Portofino. It can be done as a one way hike with a return via water taxi or bus, or as a return trip on foot as well. Along the way, you can snap photos of the splendid countryside.



pastel houses cascading down the hills in Positano
pastel houses cascading down the hills in Positano


15. Positano: Amalfi Coast Superstar


There's a saying that Positano "bites deep," it's so dreamy. Positano is the star of the Amalfi Coast. The town comes complete with sherbet colored cliffside homes, stunning beaches, and tiny cobbled lanes. Positano is the perfect base for exploring the Amalfi Coast. And the food is to die for!


Positano is built for walking. Positano's most famous site is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which has a dome made of sparkling majolica tiles.


One of the best things to do in Positano is to hike the Path of Gods. It's a well marked path extending from Positano to the town of Amalfi, which takes about 2 hours. You'll be rewarded with breathtaking views from the trail.



panoramic view of the Ponte Pietra on the Adige River in Verona
panoramic view of the Ponte Pietra on the Adige River in Verona


16. Verona: Roman Ruins


This pretty Italian town is full of red and peach colored medieval buildings and Roman ruins. It was made famous by Shakespeare's plays Romeo and Juliet and The Two Men of Verona. And it's a fitting site for a high octane infusion of romance.


Juliet's House, or Casa de Giulietta, is a gorgeous 14th Gothic building in Verona. But, like the fictional love story, Juliet's House is itself a fiction. It wasn't owned by the Capulets.



Juliet's Balcony in Verona
Juliet's Balcony in Verona


Piazza dei Signori, with a statue of the poet Dante
Piazza dei Signori, with a statue of the poet Dante


Juliet's House is really a manufactured site, scorned by hard core skeptics. But the character of Juliet, nonetheless, has a grip on most of our collective psyche. It's a rarified symbol of love in an often cynical world. Juliet's Wall is covered with notes, scribbles, and love letters.


Once you've made the obligatory Juliet pilgrimmage, you'll also want to tour the doughty Roman Arena, the Arena di Verona, in the Piazza Bra. It's the third largest classical arena in Italy, after Rome's Colosseum and Capua's Colosseum.


You should also stroll through Verona's picturesque piazzas, the Piazza dei Signori (with a statue of Dante) and the Piazza dell Erbe (with a statue of another poet, Barbarani). Visit the Church San Zeno Maggiore, where Romeo and Juliet were fictionally married. And cross the absolutely stunning Ponte Pietra stone bridge.



the towers of San Gimignano
the towers of San Gimignano


17. San Gimignano: Spiky Towers & Black Death Frescos


Surrounded by cypress groves, San Gimignano is the perfect stop between Siena and Florence. Nicknamed the "Medieval Manhattan," the walled town has a startling cityscape with 13 spiky towers poking the sky. The most famous tower is the Torre Grossa. Climbing to the top is a must do.


San Gimignano dates back to the ancient Etruscans, a civilization that preceded ancient Rome. The town flourished in the middle ages, amassing wealth from saffron.


Sam Gimignano's historic center is a UNESCO site. Park outside the city walls and walk into the town. The central square is the Piazza del Duomo.